After 15 years of fighting the federal government over lies to the public about the health risks of smoking, the nation's biggest tobacco companies are ready to apologize.
Philip Morris USA, R.J. Reynolds, Lorillard, and Altria are preparing full-page ads to run in the Sunday editions of the country's top 35 newspapers, as well as online ads for those papers' websites and prime-time television spots to run for a full year on CBS, ABC, and NBC. The corporations are also required to run corrective statements on their websites and cigarette packages.
The self-flagellation stems from a 2006 federal court decision ordering the tobacco companies to correct the record on statements they made about the health effects of smoking. On Friday, the companies' lawyers and the Justice Department struck a deal on how they will issue the apology.
A mock-up of an advertisement that could publish as a full-page ad in The New York Times reads, "A Federal Court has ruled that Philip Morris USA, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, Lorillard, and Altria deliberately deceived the American public about designing cigarettes to enhance the delivery of nicotine and has ordered those companies to make this statement."
It goes on to say that the industry "intentionally designed cigarettes to make them more addictive," and that nicotine "changes the brain," making it harder to quit.
The tobacco companies could appeal the language of the ads. But first, U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler is scheduled to review the agreement about how to issue the corrective statements on Wednesday, Jan. 22, at 10 a.m. in Courtroom 26A of the U.S. District Court of D.C.
The Justice Department first brought the case against the tobacco industry in 1999, arguing that they knowingly and intentionally misinformed the public about the negative health consequences of smoking.
Kessler ordered the industry in 2006 to issue the statements after she found them guilty of violating civil racketeering laws and lying to the public about the dangers of smoking.
The judge required the statements to appear on television and in newspapers, as well as on the companies' websites and cigarette packages, and to contain language that the court had ruled that the companies "deliberately deceived the American public."
In finding the industry guilty, Kessler wrote, "[This case] is about an industry, and in particular these Defendants, that survives, and profits, from selling a highly addictive product which causes diseases that lead to a staggering number of deaths per year, an immeasurable amount of human suffering and economic loss, and a profound burden on our national health care system. Defendants have known many of these facts for at least 50 years or more. Despite that knowledge, they have consistently, repeatedly and with enormous skill and sophistication, denied these facts to the public, the Government, and to the public health community."
Philip Morris declined to offer a comment for the story.
The statements would correct misinformation about "the health effects of smoking, the addictiveness of smoking and nicotine, the false advertising of low-tar and light cigarettes as less harmful than regular cigarettes, the designing of cigarettes to enhance the delivery of nicotine and the health effects of secondhand smoke," according to a press release from the American Cancer Society Action Network, one of the public intervenors that joined the case in 2005. The other national medical and advocacy organizations that joined the case are the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association, Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights, the National African American Tobacco Prevention Network and the Tobacco-Free Kids Action Fund.
ACSCAN's associate director of federal relations, Gregg Haifley, called the case "a long legal battle" that has been "dragged out" by the industry.
"Millions of people who otherwise might have quit continued smoking because of blatant misrepresentations of the harm to their health," Haifley said. "The tobacco industry is an industry that never gives up. But we're one step closer to a final conclusion."
The agreement falls on the 50th anniversary of the surgeon general's first report detailing the public-health consequences of smoking. The landmark study prompted antismoking groups to pursue more-stringent public policy measures regulating the use of tobacco, which resulted in 8 million lives saved since 1964, according to a study published last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Roughly 44 million adults and 3.6 million children in the United States smoke, according to numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Smoking costs the U.S. roughly $193 billion annually in health care expenditures and lost productivity, the CDC reports. Each year, an estimated 443,000 people die prematurely from a smoking-related disease.